There is significant societal stigma to ending a pregnancy. Whether a woman miscarries naturally and is constantly questioned about her behavior in an attempt to figure out what went “wrong” or opts to get an abortion, the onus is placed squarely on her to justify each of her gestational decisions. A video released on Tuesday has exacerbated that stigma, extending it to the decisions a woman makes following the end of her pregnancy.
Filmed undercover, heavily edited, and circulated by a group that calls itself the “Center for Medical Progress,” the viral clip claims to show a Planned Parenthood representative offering to “use partial-birth abortion to sell baby parts.” However, what the Planned Parenthood staffer is actually discussing in the video is the entirely legal practice of fetal tissue donation. The video and much of the media coverage depicts fetal tissue donation as ethically questionable, sinister, and immoral. In doing so, the video stigmatizes people who have sought abortions for a wide spectrum of reasons—and it’s not clear how serious the impact of this misleading video could be, as it has now been viewed more than two million times.
In case you’re not familiar with fetal tissue donation, here’s some background: The Office for Human Research Protections defines fetal tissue as “tissue or cells obtained from a dead human embryo or fetus after a spontaneous or induced abortion, or after a stillbirth.” Many medical facilities—including Planned Parenthood establishments—provide patients with the option of donating fetal material for research or transplantation purposes. Federal law, along with Planned Parenthood protocol, requires all fetal materials to be collected only after informed consent from the woman is obtained. Ultimately, fetal tissue donation is only one potential outcome for the materials resulting from the termination of a pregnancy—and one that has the potential for wide-reaching benefits resulting from research or therapeutic purposes. The use of fetal tissue in research is not new; it has occurred since the 1950s and has resulted in advancing immunology (for example, the polio and rubella vaccines) and transplantation technology, as well as increased understanding of the gestation process, and the development of amniocentesis as a diagnostic tool.
According to a statement released by Planned Parenthood addressing the video, there is “no financial benefit for tissue donation for either the patient or for Planned Parenthood. In some instances, actual costs, such as the cost to transport tissue to leading research centers, are reimbursed, which is standard across the medical field.” If the fetal materials discussed in the video were, in fact, being sold for a profit, the transaction would likely involve significantly more than the $30-100 the staffer cites. Women should have the option to donate—not sell—fetal tissue that results from ending pregnancies without facing stigma for their decision. This beneficent act has the potential to improve or save lives—the knowledge of which may be comforting for those during what may be a difficult decision-making process.
Is it ethically acceptable to use fetal tissue for research and therapeutic purposes? Yes—if it is donated with the woman’s consent, not sold for profit, and not created solely for that purpose. The notion of a woman becoming pregnant solely to create fetal tissue to sell or donate for purposes is incredibly unlikely, and also illegal. U.S. Federal law stipulates that if the fetal tissue is used for transplantation purposes, the donation must be made without any restriction or information regarding the identity of individuals who may be the recipients of transplantations. This means that a fetus cannot be conceived and aborted in order to create fetal tissue for the purpose of treating ill family members, for example.
The financial transaction described in the video—which, regrettably, features the doctor speaking conspicuously casually about the process—is standard compensation for shipping and processing costs. No one is profiting financially. The women who donate fetal tissue shouldn’t be vilified for their decision.
Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist at the Center for Ethics Education at Fordham University, and the editor of Ethics & Society. You can follow her on Twitter at @elizabethics or visit her website elizabethyuko.com. An earlier version of this post was published on the blog of the International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics.